Musings: Returning to the Real India
When ANJALI ENJETI went to India with three young daughters in tow, she was returning to a country that she’d last visited almost two decades ago. Would her children get to see what she called ‘the real India’? But what exactly is the real India, regardless of where you were born, where you grew up, and where you live? Is it a state of mind?
When I received the invitation to my cousin’s wedding, it had been nineteen years since my last trip to India. My three daughters, then ages nine, six, and three, had never been to India. What little they knew about my biennial trips to visit my Indian grandparents came from old family photographs, silk paintings hanging in our home, the gemstone necklaces lining my jewelry box, and my seemingly random maternal observations of them: “When you eat rice drenched in yogurt, it reminds me of eating at my grandmother’s rosewood table in Hyderabad.” Or, “The way you walk, with your hands clasped around your back, is just like how my Tata used to stroll through the courtyard.” These exchanges gave my children some sense of the memories I held dear, how India had influenced me. But it was time for them to have their own firsthand experiences with my father’s country.
We planned a full-blown tourist adventure leading up to my cousin’s wedding: Agra, Delhi, Bangalore, Mahabalipuram for the wedding ceremony, and last but not least, the reception in Chennai. I had hoped that such an extensive trip would afford my children the time and space to soak up the aura, the people, and the thousands-year history.
Prior to our epic vacation, only one of my three kids willingly ate Indian food, only one of them liked spicy foods. The other two pinched their noses while assuming pained facial expressions. All three of my daughters admired Indian clothes from afar, but refused to wear them to local Indian parties and celebrations. They vastly preferred t-shirts, jeans, and sweatpants to salwar suits.
To adequately prepare them for our vacation, drastic measures were in order. I became a sort of drill sergeant regarding all things Indian. I began in earnest with Indian assimilation lessons. We ate Indian food more frequently. I begged them to taste different dishes.
Please, try this curry. Please, try this chaat. You won’t be able to eat spaghetti and pizza every day in India. Next, I encouraged them to try on Indian clothes for the wedding and reception. Do you want to wear this one with the beading or the ruffled skirt?
I gave them a lesson on water. Only drink boiled water. Don’t open your mouth in the shower. Use bottled water to brush your teeth! We talked about the busy streets where animals roamed in undefined lanes. I described, in painstaking detail, Indian toilets: how to squat over them, how to wash themselves after. I spared no details.
In the airport terminal, while we waited at the gate to board our flight, I doled out several slices of Sbarro pizza. This is your last pizza for the next three weeks! Enjoy it!
We arrived in New Delhi at 2 a.m. local time, lumbered through customs, and stepped outside with three tons of luggage. A hot blast of heat smothered our faces. A battered taxi van moaned under the weight of our sleep-deprived posse: my parents, my husband, me, the kids. Our suitcases clung precariously to the van’s roof, secured only with a single frayed rope. Soon after turning on the main road, steam began rising from the seams of the hood. Our driver pulled over, poured water into the radiator. We sped off again, dust kicking up behind our wheels, fingers crossed. A few minutes later, thick clouds of smoke poured out of the car. Our driver pulled over, satiated the radiator. The cycle repeated itself every few minutes all the way to the hotel.
I turned to the children, winked. See? This is the India I was telling you about.
I thought the folly of our arrival would set the tone for the rest of the trip, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. We woke in a hotel room shrouded in velvet drapes, upon beds like clouds, with a bathroom that glowed with white tiles and granite counters. Cold air blasted through the vents. After we got dressed, we headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. “Remember,” I warned. “You have to eat what’s there, even if it doesn’t look like what you eat at home.”
Fluffy, golden pancakes, crisp halves of buttered toast, a rainbow of jams, scrambled eggs neither too runny nor too firm, mini boxes of every American cereal in the grocery store aisle back home, filled every inch of the buffet. The biscuits rivaled some of the best I’d eaten in southern diners in Atlanta. The Belgian waffles equaled those in Europe. On their first morning in India, the girls feasted on the most delicious Western breakfast of their lives.
A few days into our trip, at a craft store in Delhi, I made my way to the rear of the store to use the bathroom. When I flung open the door, much to my surprise, I discovered an Indian toilet—the first one we’d seen on our entire trip. I rushed back out, grabbed my girls’ hands, and dragged them with me to my authentic Indian find. “See this? This is an Indian toilet! You’re all going to try it out right now.” They squinted their eyes, shrugged their shoulders. But all three of them went.
I could not have been prouder.
Ultimately, my children’s Indian adventure was a luxurious one. The route from Delhi to Agra was now paved. My kids were easily able to wear American clothing everywhere, aside from the wedding. At the hotels where we stayed, the water was so clean we could drink water from the tap. None of us got sick.
India had changed. And while a lot of these changes made the country far easier to manage with three young children, I wondered whether my girls were really seeing the real India, the India that I had known and loved. I wondered whether their Indian experience was an authentic one.
In the four years since our trip, I’ve realized why it was so important for to me to introduce my children to what I deemed ‘the real India.’ It comes down to this: I wanted them to hold India as close to their hearts as I always have. My childhood India vacations shaped me in very enduring, indelible ways. They continue to inform my perspective of the world, and of how I want to exist in it.
I’ve come to understand, too, that “authentic” India extends beyond the borders of the country. It is family lore and legend whispered over warm cups of chai. It permeates photographs of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles crowded together on a sofa, toothy smiles stretching across faces, rows of bare feet kissing the floor. It embodies the excited voices of overseas phone calls, emoticons embedded in email and WhatsApp messages. It dwells in the softest places of the heart. Authenticity, the “real” India, is a state of mind. And modern-day conveniences, like air-conditioning at airports or clearer phone reception, don’t detract from India’s authentic spirit.
When I ask my children today what they enjoyed most about our trip, memories pour out of them: silly jokes and puns shared with their great uncle, piggy back rides, meals crowded around a large table shared with their cousins (yes, some of these meals included pizza), and the generosity of strangers. They remember, too, the sweet burst of Mirinda coating their parched tongues, the thrill of bumping up and down on the bench set of an auto, the irony of a peaceful, cud-chewing cow in the middle of an intersection.
Their tender, affectionate memories bear a striking resemblance to my own.
I don’t know when we’ll return to India. Most of my father’s family followed in his diasporic footsteps and emigrated to Australia and the States. Still, I hope to get in one more India trip before my daughters leave home for good. I hope, too, that someday, when they have children and grandchildren, they’ll bring their own families to a country that has always meant so much to me, a country that now means so much to them, too.
Anjali Enjeti is an Atlanta-based essayist, book critic, and novelist. For more, go to www.anjalienjeti.com.
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